The Galen Kipar Project’s blend of original folk and Americana has been dubbed “experimental” by some music scribes. But it’s really more “old school” roots, like “really old school.”
Galen Kipar fuses his soulfully sung melodies and blues threads with structure ideas he learned studying Debussy’s playbook. Kipar composes with his scope open wide, and has produced four albums in the last five years, including 2008’s acclaimed Paper Sailor, and, just-released, The Scenic Route.
Galen Kipar was born in Augusta, Georgia. His parents moved the family to northern California for several years before settling back in Augusta when Galen was nine. “James Brown is from Augusta, so when I hear James Brown and Otis Redding and Ray Charles, it definitely makes me think of home,” he sighs. “You would hear that music all over the place in Georgia, wherever you went, and that’s a nice thing. They used to play Ray Charles’ version of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ at the end of the programming day for this particular TV station when we were growing up. They had a live cam showing downtown Augusta, and would just play that song over and over again.”
Other early musical influences were provided to Kipar by his baby boomer parents. “Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Seals and Croft, Gordon Lightfoot, all that stuff,” he says. “I don’t remember much about California, but I remember the song ‘Summer Breeze’ by Seals and Croft, and I remember playing it on this record player in our house in Bridgeville, in Humboldt County. Also, my granddad was a radio deejay for about 40 years, and he played the trumpet. He was really into big band, and just loved Frank Sinatra and anything with horns in it. So I ended up falling in love with that music over the years as well.”
Kipar started playing music when he was 14, after finding his mother’s classical guitar in a closet. “A friend of mine had just gotten a guitar, and he was learning chords,” he says. “So I started learning chords, and soon we started trying to play songs.”
Now 33, Kipar was a self-taught musician until enrolling at Brevard College in 2001. “My emphasis was in composition,” he says. “I started out as a guitar performance major because I wanted to be able to play an instrument to write songs on. But I switched my interest to composition, and that’s really what I was in love with — I just didn’t know it until I chunked through some of that stuff. That’s what college forces you to do.”
Kipar’s songwriting skills have earned praise from many sources — “small scale symphony,” writes Mountain Xpress, “never settling for conventional melodic or lyrical choices,” adds Asheville magazine. “Going to school and studying composition with Paul Elwood was basically like gathering a toolbox,” Kipar says. “Before I went back to school I had hit a plateau where I just wrote the same song over and over again in a different way. Picking up compositional techniques and tactics, you just have a whole dictionary of things to use as writing tools. I don’t think I’ll ever cover everything in my lifetime. That’s the beauty of it. There are so many different ways to create music.”
Kipar is inspired by music like Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’ “I love Debussy’s ‘La Mer,'” he says. “It’s all about the oceans, and it’s creating imagery through several different movements. My college professor was persistent that you take an original melody when you’re thinking about a song or a work, and you get everything that happens in that song from that group of notes, those intervals. It can always come back around, but you’re developing it from those. It’s like when you’re writing — you come up with a topic, you develop your thesis statement and then you elaborate on that statement. Music is a language in so many different forms, so a lot of those same principles can be applied.”
Kipar met his talented bandmate, Jon Morrow, at Brevard College, where they played classical music together in the guitar ensemble. Morrow plays an eight-stringed Novax guitar, and simultaneously covers guitar and bass parts in the GKP. They trade off on leads. “It works well because we’re both playing finger-style picking for the most part,” Kipar says. “On a couple tunes I’ll use a pick for a strumming pattern. I try and write music for those instruments, with lots of counterpoint happening. So the experience that we got together in guitar ensemble has definitely carried through to this point.”
Drummer Jeremy Young brings a myriad of grooves to the table, from world beat and jazz fusion to blues and avant garde. “I was on the hunt for a drummer, heard him play one night, and it all came from there,” Kipar recalls. “He is the rock. I love that guy. John and Jeremy have definitely turned me on to some other styles of music. We’ve been listening to Indian composers, and they’ve turned me on to some jazz — I really like Brad Mehldau’s stuff.”
Western North Carolina has proven to be a good fit for Galen Kipar. “Brevard kind of found me, honestly. I had fallen in love with the mountains and gotten into fly- fishing,” he says. “I got a little bit of scholarship money, and that was enough to at least get me up here. From there I found Asheville and just fell in love with the area. If you’re going to be on the East Coast, in my opinion, this is it. Especially for a musician or someone that loves the outdoors.
“Art is a reflection of your surroundings, a mirror of culture. I think that if you spend enough time in one kind of environment then it’s going to channel through in whatever you’re doing.”